HD Trailblazer: NHK TV turns 50

When Japan's sole public television broadcaster debuted in 1953, no one had ever heard of high definition. Half a century later, NHK is pushing forward the format it pioneered. As the pubcaster celebrates its golden anniversary, MATTHEW SYLVAIN considers how NHK is breaking new ground with HD
April 1, 2003

Noriyoshi Shimonoto stooped over a broken amplifier in Antarctica in late January 2003 and calmly confronted a potentially show-stopping problem. One of five NHK staffers dispatched to the South Pole in late-November 2002 to construct a broadcast center, the engineer was helping to prepare a 45-minute, live high-definition transmission from the region’s Syowa Base. Scheduled for February 1, the anniversary of NHK’s first televised broadcast in 1953, it would be the symbolic kick-off of Project Antarctica 2003, an ambitious US$5 million undertaking celebrating the Japanese public channel’s 50th birthday. Through a series of transmissions, the year-long project would show off Earth’s most remote region and showcase NHK’s expertise in the art and science of producing in HD.

All this depended, however, on Shimonoto’s being able to fix the broken amplifier. The part – an electrical component essential to moving HD video signals for a satellite relay – had been packed in a container along with other equipment and sent on an icebreaker from Japan. Masaru Ikeo, executive producer of NHK’s science and environment programs, says that by the time it traveled the rough seas to Antarctica, the part became damaged. They had shipped spare amplifier components, but even the spares were smashed. The amplifier’s Canadian manufacturer insisted the parts were beyond salvaging, but Shimonoto persevered. Using a lathe, he repaired the amplifier, and the live show proceeded as planned.

The Antarctic mission exhibits the can-do spirit characteristic of a pioneer – a trait that has made NHK a sought-after partner in the coproduction world. It also marks a milestone on a path NHK has followed for 50 years, one that has positioned the pubcaster as the industry-defining innovator and expert in high-definition television. Tatsuya Nakamura, head of international coproductions for the Tokyo-based organization, says he and his colleagues hope that using broadcasting’s cutting-edge technology to conquer Antarctica will help raise the company’s industry profile further still. Nakamura adds that in the logo-conscious global economy, NHK aspires to become as well known as the BBC and CNN.

Along with the February 1 feed from Syowa, other Antarctic initiatives include a live broadcast of the auroras (known as the northern and southern lights), to be transmitted in September 2003 in cooperation with another NHK crew stationed in Abisko, Sweden, and live coverage of a total solar eclipse in November.

NHK is also producing a two-part science documentary of the trip, called The Antarctic (w/t), which will air this summer. Episode one explores the geography of the

little-known region; episode two follows a British research team as it investigates the effects of global warming on the antipodal ice cap.

NHK is footing the overall budget for the Antarctic mission in partnership with two Japanese research centers (several other broadcasters have expressed interest in coproducing live programs around NHK’s feed, including China’s CCTV, Australia’s SBS and Korea’s KBS). A live HD transmission from the International Space Station (a joint operation with Silver Spring, U.S.-based Discovery Networks International) was also planned, but was put on hold in the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle accident in early February.


Gazing far into the future in the mid ’60s, researchers at NHK’s Science and Technical Research laboratories set about studying how the human brain and senses receive stimuli. They concluded television’s standard 4:3 aspect ratio was under-delivering and that a wider screen offered more appeal. By the end of the decade, the developers settled on the 16:9 ratio. Then, in 1970, NHK decided this new screen would ideally have more scanning lines (the streams of light pouring across the tube) and boosted the standard 525 to 1,125. High definition – or Hi-Vision, as it is known in Japan – was born.

Twenty-one years later, in 1991, NHK and several Japanese commercial broadcasters began airing eight hours of HD programming a day. In December 2000, the pubcaster launched a 24-hour HD channel using the 1080i format. Today – nearly 40 years after HD was first conceived and following about $345 million in R&D investments – NHK remains at the forefront of HD development.

The staff at NHK realized that developing a richer visual canvas was only half the battle. Drawing converts to the new technology was equally important, and required developing programs that tap into the capabilities of the HD screen. But, says Nakamura, HD’s rollout to the international market wasn’t easy.

At first, broadcasters and producers simply didn’t like it. ‘We used to run up against some walls,’ he says of HD copros. Ignorance of the technology was one of the biggest issues, with prospective partners balking at the shortcomings of early HD equipment, Nakamura adds.

Margie Smilow, director of culture and arts docs at New York, U.S.-based PBS channel Thirteen/WNET, has worked with NHK for many years. She notes that early HD cameras were cumbersome. ‘We called it transportable, not portable. Doing a single-camera shoot meant pretty much having a cube truck with you,’ she says.

Figuring out the intricacies of editing in HD – as well as downconverting HD footage to standard def and upconverting to HD – was also a concern, adds Michael Stedman, managing director of Dunedin, New Zealand-based nhnz, an indie prodco that has worked with NHK for over a decade. ‘There was more bullshit about bloody HD transfers than I’ve had hot dinners,’ he says, recalling issues that arose while working on the 2000 series Wild Asia, a study of the continent’s fauna and flora that was shot mostly on Super 16, but posted in HD.

But, perseverance paid off. ‘Most of the [transfer] issues we had with Wild Asia, which were all part of a learning experience, have evaporated,’ he explains. ‘We understand a lot more about HD and now know our way around.’ NHNZ and NHK are currently developing another HD series called The Equator, a 6 x 1-hour project examining the variety of ecosystems that belt the Earth at zero-degrees latitude (the equator passes through ecologically important and threatened regions of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, Stedman explains). It is budgeted at approximately $800,000 an hour.

Gone too are the days of cube trucks. HD equipment is now lighter and more robust, and broadcasters around the world are increasingly keen on HD programs. ‘The tide is running in our favor,’ notes Nakamura. He believes HD ‘reenergizes’ TV. ‘It arouses renewed interest among audiences… Coproducing in this format will attract attention,’ he adds.


By joining with players from other regions, NHK is able to offer its audience innovative stories while off-loading some of the business risks associated with production. ‘NHK is willing to participate in quality projects proposed by foreign producers, because they often include content that is novel to us,’ Nakamura explains. It’s not surprising, then, that the number of international coproductions at NHK, including docs in HD, is increasing.

In 2001, the year for which the most recent data is available, NHK broadcast 37 coproductions, including 17 documentaries (28 of the 37 were HD copros). That compares to 33 copros in 2000, including 12 docs (16 of the 33 were HD copros).

Last fall the Japanese pubcaster entered into a three-year HD-production pact with its U.S. counterpart, PBS. wnet’s Smilow, the point person for the PBS family, explains that NHK, WNET and PBS are working on several arts projects, including Norman Rockwell and Degas and the Dance. Also in the works is a 6 x 1-hour series on the history of live theater, called Broadway: The American Musical. All three are visually strong stories that complement HD’s strengths, she explains.

‘The Degas paintings look incredible…the difference [on-screen] is astonishing when you compare standard versus high definition,’ Smilow adds.

To help win audience share, NHK has lined up several ‘high-impact’ HD docs by big-name filmmakers. Haruki Kito, deputy director-general of NHK’s satellite and Hi-Vision department, holds up as two examples James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck (coproduced with Discovery Channel), which follows director James Cameron as he hunts for the wreckage of the famous World War II battleship, and Russian Ark, in which director Alexander Sokurov takes viewers on a 90-minute single-shot (no edits) tour of the artwork displayed at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

NHK has also found audience success with science-related programs, which play to the strengths of its in-house producers. ‘They are terrific science producers,’ says Steve Burns, senior VP of production at Silver Spring, U.S.-based Discovery Channel. ‘They are very clued in to the latest research.’ He recounts how, with the benefit of computer-graphic imaging (which NHK producers helped develop for television), NHK programs bring to life ‘things that heretofore science producers had not been able to show, whether it’s the workings of the hippocampus [gray matter] in the brain, or T-Rex walking across a drying, cracked-mud plain, or the re-creation of ancient cities.’

Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and coproductions at Paris-based pubcaster France 5, is impressed with the attention to detail NHK exhibits in its copros. She witnessed this from afar as a financial partner for Space Millennium, an HD project that NHK made with French distrib Tele Images International and German broadcaster ZDF in 2001. Julienne says France 5 pre-bought the $8 million series, which explores the riddle of life in the universe.

Although France 5 does not transmit in HD, it signed a three-year copro deal with NHK last fall, in which the French pubcaster pledged to spend approximately $7 million on 130 hours of mostly factual programming. One of the results of that deal is Mysterious Cities of Asia: Past and Present, a 6 x 1-hour, $700,000-per-episode HD history program.

Yet, the partnership has its wrinkles. Julienne finds NHK’s stories need adapting to work for European audiences. She recently coproduced Civilizations with the Japanese pubcaster, a 4 x 1-hour HD series about the communities that sprouted on the shores of certain rivers in antiquity. (Other partners included the U.K.’s Channel 4, France’s Gedeon and Germany’s Bayerischer Rundfunk/Telepool.) ‘Westerners tend to regard history in a slightly different way from Easterners, so we rewrote the script,’ she explains.

Julienne’s experience with NHK is not unique. In addition to the refocusing of historical perspectives, many NHK coproductions require reversioning – a common occurrence in the business of international documentaries – to accommodate cultural expectations of how a story is told.

Sayumi Horie, producer of NHK International Co-Productions, notes that unlike in the Western doc tradition, where interviews with experts are used extensively to anchor the narrative and provide credibility, ‘we tend to use less interview footage, and use CGI or other images and narration to elaborate facts. Japanese viewers tend to find this approach easy to understand.’

NHNZ’s Stedman contends that ‘Japanese television has a far more gentle pace. Programs will spend more time exploring individual subjects than American-paced programs,’ which use faster-cut sequences and quicker edits.

Working with the Japanese pubcaster also requires a slightly different attitude than working with Western organizations, Stedman says. He advises outside producers to invest a lot of time in comprehending Japanese viewing tastes and the intricacies of Japanese business culture, and to pursue a less assertive, more flexible stance in meetings. Stedman explains that an aggressive position may work with American and British broadcasters, but won’t be appreciated in Japan. It’s a potential deal killer, he contends.

WNET’s Smilow echoes Stedman’s assertions. ‘Often [in the U.S.] there is a point person who will make decisions, but in Japan those decisions are made by consensus.’ As a result, personal relationships and strong communication skills become even more essential, she says.


As fits an organization that led an entire industry segment for a generation, NHK has clear ideas of what’s in store for HD. ‘In just a few years, all killer content, be it movies, music, arts or sports, will be preserved in HD-DVD format under international standards,’ predicts Kito. Several manufacturers – Sony, Hitachi and Toshiba among them – are currently locked in a fight to develop this next generation of dvds and dvd players. The discs will be recordable, and will even be capable of duplicating HD programs, says Kito. ‘Whichever manufacturer takes the lead, there is a clear possibility of a revolutionary advance,’ he continues.

Kito also notes the business trend – already under way – of television and film companies migrating their existing film reels and standard video to digital HD, on account of the format’s exceptionally low decay rate: ‘Many producers and broadcasters are showing interest in preserving their content in HD.’ That process, currently glacier slow and very expensive, will quicken and get cheaper once DVD recorders are introduced on the market, he says. ‘We anticipate it will happen in a few years,’ he adds.

By then, it won’t be a surprise if NHK is working on Project Moon 2006.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.